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The River Wild

For River Rats and Amateurs Alike, There's No Thrill Quite Like Riding the Rapids
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

The Bío-bío. The Zambezi. The Omo. The middle fork of the Salmon. The Tuolumne and the Tatshenshini. These names conjure up adventure, images of exotic lands far, far away. For river rafters, they are Holy Grails, the Everests and McKinleys of white water. Yet as the world becomes smaller, the foreign more commonplace, these surging, boiling waters filled with wild rapids beckon first-timers along with the most hard-core river rats.

Riding the rapids has been aptly described as a wet roller coaster. After miles of calm, serene river, on the horizon appears a point where the river seems to end -- a drop in elevation that causes white water. As you near it, the water seems to be boiling, throwing sheets of spray into the air. The most extreme rapids can be heard before they are seen, the roaring force of millions of gallons of turbulent water colliding with rocks, forming swirling whirlpools, high waves and conflicting currents.

As the raft enters the rapids, the bow rides up waves and then crashes down into the troughs and, as on a roller coaster, you feel the drops in the pit of your stomach. As the raft crashes through the wave tops, walls of water liberally spray over the bow, dousing all aboard. In the angriest confluences the rafts are lifted on edge, or stood on their noses almost vertically, or bounced to and fro, seemingly powerless in the grip of mother nature. Some rapids form "wave trains" -- a series of big breakers running one after another, hurtling passengers up and over, up and down, like a bucking bronco. In seconds that seem like hours, the rapids end and the charging raft returns to a near standstill, drifting idly again while smiles spread and heart rates drop. All eyes turn downriver eagerly scouting for the next wild ride.

The sport of river rafting was fueled by the wide availability of surplus military-issue rafts after the Second World War. These replaced the homemade boats used by explorers and adventurers, and in a few years inflatable rafts were commonplace on rivers across the United States. Soon private manufacturers got into the act, technology and skills improved, and commercial river rafting, once limited to the Colorado and a handful of other Western rivers, swept the globe.

Like other adventure sports, various forms of rafting can be found. Some fans of the sport are content to drift through stunning scenery and experience nature firsthand, while adrenaline junkies travel the globe looking for more and bigger white water. Some rafters take an active role in paddling, while others leave the work up to guides. Many care more for the camaraderie in scenic locales than for rapids. The only thing rafters have in common is their love of the river.

"Wild rivers are Earth's renegades, defying gravity, dancing to their own tunes, resisting the authority of humans, always chipping away, and eventually always winning," Richard Bangs wrote in his book Whitewater Adventure. "And wild rivers bring out the renegade in us, enticing us to leave behind all that we've been taught and to let ourselves surrender to that special symphony. And when we hear that music, we know that it is a secret the river is sharing, a knowledge that the clearest way into the universe is downstream."

Bangs is the Edmund Hillary of rafting, largely responsible for globalizing the sport, taking it from the Colorado River to every corner of the Earth. "I was swept away by the concept of rafting as a gentle way to access the wilderness," he says, recalling a stint in 1969 as a river guide in the Grand Canyon. "It is hours of reflective solitude interrupted by seconds of thrilling adrenaline rushes." Bangs has been rafting ever since, pioneering new routes down untraveled rivers.

Thrill seekers should be forewarned that no matter how wild the river, its length or drop, most of the time spent rafting consists of idle floating, watching scenery pass by at a pace slightly faster than walking. The rivers chosen for commercial rafting trips are showcases for stunning natural beauty, from the towering walls of the Grand Canyon to sightings such as Alaskan grizzlies fishing on riverbanks.

"On some of our trips, if you're a white-water junkie, the river itself is the reason you're there," says Mark Campbell of Mountain Travel-Sobek, the renowned outfitter launched by Bangs. "On others, the river is simply a highway to take you into areas you otherwise couldn't go."

Rafting choices are as varied and endless as the rivers themselves. Float trips are just that -- placid journeys adrift in the current through natural settings. The Tatshenshini River in Alaska and Canada's Yukon, for instance, draws legions of loyal devotees despite having a dearth of major rapids. The reason: it's a 100-mile trip through canyons, close to moose, wolves and grizzlies, and through a forest of icebergs calving from glaciers that line the mouth of Alaska's Alsek Bay. Wyoming's Snake River twists through beautiful Grand Teton National Park, a delightful float trip that rewards passengers with superlative scenery yet never encounters any remotely dangerous rapids, remaining a sanguine Class I for nearly 50 miles. Four-year-olds make this trip.


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